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Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings from their point of view. To put it simply, it’s placing oneself in their shoes and understanding what they are feeling. A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Dr. Sara Konrath showed that university students showed a definite decline in empathy. The most pronounced decline has occurred since 2000. In the study Konrath, along with her colleagues, to the Interpersonal Reactivity Index scores of approximately 14,000 students and measured how much the scores had changed over the years. The test was created in 1979 and the results showed that nearly 75% of today’s students rate themselves as being less empathetic than average students did 30 years ago, but why? What underlies this lack of empathy in millennials?
Speculation is widely varied as to why millennials seem to lack the empathy exhibited by previous generations, but one recurring theory is that the “me generation” has always been taught to put themselves first. From toddlers to high school students, school programs, movies, and television shows tell them that they are special and give them an impressive sense of self-confidence; this is a good thing. Some experts feel, however, that it is too much of a good thing. Knowing your wants, needs, and feelings are important is healthy, but not at the expense of overlooking the wants, needs, and feelings of others.
In another theory, Dr. Konrath cited that a rise in social isolation has coincided with the decline in empathy. It has become more common for Americans to live alone in the last 30 years and less common for them to join social groups, such as sports teams or political parties. It is hinted by studies that this sort of isolation can affect an individual’s attitude toward others.
In addition, recent decades have seen a huge shift in how we consume information. The number of adult Americans who read for pleasure dropped (for the first time) to under 50% in the past 10 years. The decrease was most pronounced in college age adults and it is thought that reading is linked to empathy. Raymond A. Mar, a psychologist at Toronto’s York University, demonstrated that preschooler’s ability to relate to other’s emotions could be predicted by the number of stories that they had read. He also showed that adults who reported that they read less fiction also reported themselves to be less inclined to empathy.
Yet another theory is that millennials have been desensitized by violent media content. It seems that from the nightly news to television shows and movies, violence is a part of life. Whatever the reason, GenMe seems to lack much of the basic empathy that previous generations thought was human nature. Whether it is a true lack of empathy or simply that they are misunderstood depends on your point of view. It has even been said that those who accuse them of being less empathetic are in fact showing a lack of empathy themselves.